Jennifer Pozner is the director of Women In Media & News in New York City and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
Q: Why do you say it’s “bulls–t” that viewer demand has created the deluge of reality TV?
A: Michael Hirschorn, the brain trust behind VH1’s Flavor of Love and Flavor of Love: Charm School and basically the guy who is responsible for bringing the modern minstrel show to television, has said in an interview that – this is the quote, “If women don’t want those shows they wouldn’t get made,” That’s what I call bulls–t, because what reality producers and what the entertainment press sells us is this notion that we, the public, have just demanded via massive ratings that they give us this bottom-feeder low-quality reality TV fare, and this is just a big lie. It’s true that some reality shows—American Idol, The Bachelor—have gotten high ratings, but many others languish with paltry ratings and they get to stay [on air] because these shows are really cheap to produce. It can cost about 50 per cent less—sometimes even 75 per cent less—to make a reality show than to make a quality scripted program.
Q: And they can also get advertisers to pay big money for stealth product placement.
A: People think that product placement is just a Coke can or a Coke cup on the desk at American Idol. But advertisers can pay millions of dollars per episode to integrate their products into the casting choices, the plot development, the dialogue, the scenery, the “challenges” of shows. Take The Apprentice, which has gotten upwards of $2 million per episode from a variety of Fortune 500 type companies to integrate into the challenges, so every episode is basically one long infomercial for Sony and Chrysler and candy bars and cars and sneakers. Some seasons The Apprentice has done very well in the ratings, and other seasons it’s done so poorly that NBC cancelled it. But then they hired a new entertainment division president, Ben Silverman, and he happened to be a former reality TV producer. He was one of the people responsible for producing a show called The Restaurant. NBC paid not one dime to create that show, it was created by a reality TV production company that works with advertisers to create content that advertisers want people to see, and then they gave that show, for free, to NBC. So NBC didn’t invest anything; they were just able to sell commercials. So Ben Silverman gets to NBC, realizes that The Apprentice was a cash cow even though the ratings had plummeted, reversed the decision to cancel The Apprentice, and then turned it into The Celebrity Apprentice, sprinkled D-list fairy dust on it and brought it back. Was it because people, the public, really wanted that show? No, it was plummeting in the ratings every single season since it debuted. Now it’s back because Silverman, a reality TV stealth advertising fan, decided that it was too cheap and too lucrative to let go.
Q: Do most people understand that what they’re watching is completely manufactured?
A: If you ask most people, “Do you think reality TV is real?” they’ll say, “Oh, no, no, I know it’s fake”—but in the next breath they’ll say, “Oh, but that bitch needed to get eliminated,” or, “Oh, but that guy was such a douchebag.” Well, if you think you know anything about any of the people you’ve seen on reality shows, you don’t know that the shows are not real. These shows aren’t any more real than Mad Men, without the cool clothes. But Mad Men, at least, is intentionally scripted to have a running critical commentary about the sexism and racism of the ’50s and early ’60s within the advertising industry.
Q: You argue that we need to readjust our definition of “scripted.”
A: Scripting doesn’t happen in the traditional sense of actors being given a 30-page manifesto to memorize. It starts with casting. Producers find people with addiction problems or anger problems, and think, “This will make great TV.” Women who are Mensa members or high achievers tend not to be cast. Women who are either sincerely “looking for their Prince Charming” or sincerely feeling down on their luck do. After casting, they then edit people into stock characters: the dumb bimbo, the catty bitch, the weepy loser who says, “I’m going to die alone if the bachelor doesn’t choose me!” For women of colour those stock characters are even more extreme. Editing is the predominant way that scripting happens. People don’t understand that for every 45 minutes of The Bachelor they see, more than 100 hours of film have been shot.
Q: You write about “Frankenbites,” the industry term for splicing various conversations together to create a fraudulent new one.
A: One of the most controversial scenes on any reality show was in Joe Millionaire. Viewers watched about five minutes of trees in the dark, nothingness. But what you heard were things like, “Do you think it would go better lying down?” And there were captions like “slurp” and “mmm.” Those bits of conversation were from an entirely different day. I’ll give you another example. One of the only Asian women who’d ever appeared on The Bachelor was a medical student named Tina Wu. She was recruited by the producers because the bachelor that year was a doctor, so they thought, “Oh, it would be good to have one person, at least, who has his medical stuff in common.” She hadn’t seen the show before, she thought, “Oh, maybe it’ll be a chance to have some fun vacation.” Well, she goes on the show, and she blogged about it in great, great detail—but she ripped that show to shreds. She talked about the psychologists they have behind the scenes who do all these intake interviews, so they knew that she had a very troubled relationship with her family, in particular her father. She hated being on the show, she said that it was filthy, there were rats running around the mansion, that there was very little food and constant alcohol. And she didn’t like the guy; she thought he was kind of boring. She would say on camera that she thought he didn’t really have a good since of humour, because at one point they’re out an a date where there’s big, huge yacht and he says something like, “Welcome to my yacht,” and she laughs about it because she knows that he can’t possibly afford that. She’s like, “Oh, you mean this is your yacht?” in this very kind of ha-ha way, calling attention to the product placement. Then they edit that to make her seem like she’s a dumb-ass and she really believes that this is, you know, “This is your yacht!”
She was edited into the girl who was too closed off, who wouldn’t open up, and that became the thing he would always say to her and other women would always say, “Why aren’t you opening up? You’re too cold.” So at one point she says to the producers on camera: “I’m not opening up because I’m not really interested in him, but being on this show, agreeing to do this show, was the thing I regret most in my life.”
Well, eventually, way, way, way longer into the show than she would have preferred, she eventually gets eliminated. When she finally got eliminated it was about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, she said, and she was grinning ear to ear, she was happy to go home. That didn’t play well with producers, and they kept saying to her, “We need you to cry,” and she wasn’t interested in crying, she wasn’t heart-broken. And they told her: “If you don’t show some real emotion here you’re just going to be edited into being, you know, the cold bitch.” And she was happy; she was going home, she didn’t want to cry. So they poke at her and poke at her and poke at her, and she’s still not giving them the tears that they want, so finally… now, imagine you’ve been up since, like, 7:00 in the morning, you’ve been in this high-pressure environment all day, and the producer is saying to you, “Don’t you think your father would be disappointed in you?” or things about your family. That’s where she cried. She felt betrayed that they would exploit her personal back story that way. And so what we saw as viewers was after she gets eliminated we hear her say, “I didn’t open up to the bachelor. This was the biggest regret of my life,” and then she cries. That’s a frankenbite.
Q: Have any contestants taken producers to task for misappropriating what they’ve said?
A: They sign away their rights to do so. In these very draconian contracts it says: “We can make a fiction out of you and we most likely will.” It says that in legal language but that’s basically the long and short of it. Not only do people sign away their rights to speak to the press negatively about the shows, they sign away their rights to own the intellectual property of things they create on shows like Project Runway or on American Idol, they sign away their rights to sue if they get injured or even killed on these shows. What these contracts do is they cause a chilling effect, because most people who show up on reality TV shows do so because they are hoping for some sort of big pay-day to change their life, right, so they’re not going to be people who have the kinds of resources to go up against Goliath, so they just don’t say all of the things that have seen happen behind the scenes. You know, they’ll maybe critique, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I was edited on the show,” to Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide, but they won’t say, “Here exactly is how they manipulate reality so that what you’re seeing is absolutely not real.”
Q: Reality shows appear to exist in a bubble, completely disconnected from social reality.
A: Absolutely. At the same time you have a housing bubble in America and the highest unemployment rate since the Depression, you’re seeing television shows encouraging us to root for massive profits for real estate speculators and house-flippers on shows like Million Dollar Listing and Flip that House. And at the same time as women are making great strides in politics, in business, and redefining personal relationships within the family, within parenting, within sexual communication and relationships, on television, in the guise of reality, producers have expected us to believe that women have no ambition, they want us to believe that women not only have no real choices, they don’t even want any. So in that way, with shows like Wife Swap in which every woman who works outside the home is pitted against a stay-at-home mom, or pitted against a woman who may work outside the home but doesn’t really want to, only has to, and all the women who actually like their careers are considered bad mothers, and all the women who stay at home are considered doormats. What I want people to understand is that this massive stereotyping, the massive regressive depictions of womanhood, of women being stupid, of women being less competent than men, of women being catty, vindictive and not to be trusted especially by other women, of women being gold diggers, all of these ideas are very much a product of reality TV producers and networks wanting to revive 1950s ideology for the contemporary age. These shows aren’t any more real than Mad Men, without the cool clothes, but Mad Men, at least, is intentionally scripted to have a running critical commentary about the sexism and racism of the ’50s and early ’60s within the advertising industry.
Reality TV is showing us the same kind of misogyny but they’re glorifying it and they’re pretending that it’s real. What we see in reality television is the remarkable success of reality TV producers creating a fictitious world and packaging it to us as if it’s reality, a world that the most ardent fundamentalists have always tried to achieve, one in which women’s rightful place is in the home, and women who have independence are scorned and will die alone, and in which the only role for fathers is financial provision and if they are stay-at-home parents they’re wimps and sissies and not real men, a world in which people of colour exist only as male buffoons, thugs and pimps, and female whores and the Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes. That world is not real, but through all of this frankenbite editing and pick-and-choose and advertisers’ influence over content, we get to see what networks want us to believe about ourselves at the turn of the century: they want us to believe that the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, never existed. We see no traces of that in reality TV. So just at the same time as women are winning and setting world records in any number of Olympic sports, America’s Next Top Model debuts to tell women that their bodies are specifically here just to be decorative, and the thinner and weaker the better. At the same time as Condoleezza Rice is becoming national security advisor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire is telling us that the biggest ambition that we can have is to be chosen in a sort of mail-order-bride/Miss America parade to get married to somebody we don’t even know in a network-arranged marriage. And that’s just not what life is like in America anymore. The age of first marriage keeps rising, people are staying single longer, the number of two-parent families where both parents work is rising because of economic conditions. The ideology of this world that we see on television is very specifically political, it’s very regressive, and it’s very intentional.
Q: You give the example of a black woman being axed from Real Housewives of Atlanta because she didn’t fit producers’ stereotypes.
A: What’s interesting with The Real Housewives of Atlanta is when you see how reality producers tweak formulas to reinforce ethnic stereotypes. The original real housewives were of Orange County, and they were depicted as blondes, bimbos, elite wealthy snob elitists. And then it went to New York where they still had a lot of the snobbery but there was a bit more of a sort of east coast flair to it, and then we have Atlanta where all of a sudden the notion is because it’s black women all of a sudden there are physical fist fights, and there’s intimidation, and people are scared of one another, and there’s consent screaming and altercations. The running subtext is “these people” are low class and no amount of money can change their inherent nature.”
That first season, DeShawn Snow, was a divinity student, she was studying for, I believe, a Ph.D., she headed a foundation for girls’ empowerment, But we never saw her studying. The fact that this was a studious, intelligent woman who was a religious person, who wanted to empower young girls, especially girls of colour, the only thing we ever saw about her foundation was as an excuse for her to have problems throwing a party and people being snubbed because they weren’t invited to the party. And the reason we didn’t get to see her cracking open the books and studying is because that would interrupt the narrative they wanted to present about black women, that narrative being that black women are ignorant and illiterate. For example, they didn’t show us DeShawn studying but they did show us NeNe Leakes not being able to help her son with math and having to get her husband to tutor him because she doesn’t know which is bigger, a third of a half . When they dropped her from the series it was because—they specifically told her—“You don’t fly off the handle the way we need you to. Next season we’re going to be amping up the drama even more and we just don’t think you have it in you.” So then the next season she was out, and who did they bring in? A woman who they edited – a hip-hop star – who they edited as basically ‘ghetto,’ and they called her ghetto over and over and over, and then they spent a lot of time on her relationship with her fiancé who had numerous kids from different mothers.
Q: A catfight does generate more interest.
A: By no means am I saying that these shows aren’t compelling. They are. They basically offer all of the sniping and gossip and voyeurism of high school cliques and office gossip without feeling like we’re affecting any real people. And if we’re questioning whether or not we’re being the best parents we can be, well, at least our families aren’t self-destructing like Jon and Kate’s. But [the appeal is] not just schadenfreude—there’s a lot of humour. That’s the biggest draw of Jersey Shore, that people behave ridiculously and it’s funny to watch. The bigger question is why there’s such a huge appetite for this prurient kind of thing. When this genre burst onto the scene with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, there was the hugest public outcry: “Oh my God, this is so regressive.” Ten years later it’s a very different climate. News outlets basically just repeat the same big lies that reality TV producers sell.
Q: And now Jon and Kate are “news,” the argument being that people are interested.
A: Why do you have pictures of Snooki and Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky and Kate Gosselin on the covers of all the tabloids? Well, because it’s so much cheaper. I’ve already talked about how much cheaper it is to run an unscripted show versus a scripted show, but think about the tabloid level: If you pay a paparazzi for a photo of Snooki you’re paying only a few bucks. If you pay a paparazzi for a photo of Angelina Jolie—and it’s a good photo—that’s a very pricy picture. It goes back to money. Same reason why CNN can run endless amounts of, “What’s wrong with Lindsay Lohan? Should she get help? Is she ever going to beat her drug addiction?” stories ad nauseam, because you pay some guy to videotape Lindsay walking around or getting in and out of her car, tape Paris Hilton getting in and out of her car and hopefully catching a crotch shot, you pay them a few hundred bucks and you’ve got your story for the entire day, and maybe even repeatedly through the entire week.
That is much cheaper than stationing, for example, a whole foreign bureau in Afghanistan to make sure that you’ve got, every single day, new coverage of civilian deaths or of whatever the new battle is. You don’t have to pay translators, you don’t have to pay videographers, you don’t have to pay numerous reporters, you don’t have to pay security personnel to keep them safe, you don’t have to pay their lodging and their travel, you just have to throw a few hundred bucks to a paparazzi who maybe gets Lindsay looking dazed or Paris without underwear and then you’ve got your CNN or your Fox story for the next half hour or for the next five days. Same thing for the tabloids, right? So again they will say, “This is what we want,” and it’s not that people won’t buy it. That’s key. People are buying it, I’m not saying nobody wants it, I’m saying people would also want quality, funny, interesting programming if we were given that option. A lot of the reason people aren’t watching scripted shows that are quality options is because those shows get yanked off the air before they can develop an audience. A show like Cheers, longest-running sit-com, would not get the chance to develop in today’s market.
There’s often a massively financed campaign to get us to believe in the appearance of spontaneous collective interest. For example, Survivor existed to test the new Infinity-Viacom-CBS merger, to test the power of cross-platform promotion. So for months before that show appeared, shock jocks on FM stations would wake people up with, “There’s going to be this show with cute chicks in bikinis eating bugs. You gotta check it out.” And then you could turn to your news station and find Mark Burnett being interviewed about a new format in which advertisers and networks work together to bring us unscripted content, and then when you get home, 60 Minutes was talking about it. Nobody was talking about that show who wasn’t on CBS’s, Viacom’s and Infinity’s payroll. And then there were embedded sponsors, the Survivor logo on Doritos, so it seemed like if you were not watching Survivor, you were missing out on a massive cultural phenomenon.
Q: You watched a thousand hours of reality TV to do this book and you write that not everything is odious. Shows shows like Project Runway or Amazing Race, for instance you, like.
A: I’m really glad that you asked that. People make the mistake of thinking that what I’m saying is that they should absolutely turn the TV off, that they shouldn’t watch any reality shows if they don’t want to be brainwashed, or that they’re bad people if they watch reality TV, and that’s not at all what I’m saying. The problem with reality TV is not the format. You can do interesting, compelling, and non-bigoted things with the format of unscripted television, but that requires intentionality. There are a few shows here and there that have been actually quite edifying, a show like Project Runway that focuses mostly on talent, that focuses on people creating something out of nothing under tight deadlines with very few limited resources and odd materials. I think I call it in the book “Macgyver meets Milan.” That show tends to celebrate people’s differences as opposed to pitting people against each other based on difference, and that is an intentional part of their narrative. But people were wondering why this season of Project Runway seems to feature so much more back-biting and arguing and—to some degree—stereotyping than we’ve seen on many seasons before.
I was not surprised by this at all because now that it’s on Lifetime it’s a different set of producers: it’s Bunim/Murray Productions who created The Real World. I was worried as soon as I heard that Bunim Murray was going to take over Project Runway that the narrative would shift. And they know they can’t shift it too much because it’s a success based on this talent-over-everything-else mould that has been created by Bravo over the years for that show, but they have built in more stereotyping this season; they have built in more arguing and more contestants yelling at each other, etc. And so again when you see the differences there you realize producers really decide how people are going to behave and what kinds of narratives occur. But in general, the reason so many people love Project Runway is because it’s not based on humiliation, it’s based on validating artistic endeavour.
Q: Explain why you see a link between the [U.S.] Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the shrinking size of actresses.
A: Telecom ’96 happens [and] media companies merge at a much faster rate than ever before, and we see the introduction of really cheap-to-produce tabloids, both print and TV, that do very little more than follow celebrity women around shaming them about their bodies. All of these “Baby Bump?” arrows pointing at bellies, when somebody basically ate a bagel that day. This was not the case when media companies cared about profit but also, in a measured way, about the quality of their content. So in the ’80s you had shows like Beverly Hills 90210, in which the girls basically looked like thin but healthy young women. Fast forward after Telecom ’96 to the current show 90210—almost every single girl looks unhealthily skinny.
Q: Why do you say violence against women is part of the subtext and text of reality shows?
A: Violence against women has always been part of the subtext and also part of the text of reality TV on networks, since 2000. That first show, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, the guy who was considered the crown prince had a restraining order against him. Flavor Flav [of The Flavor of Love] has had charges against him for domestic violence, and yet he gets three seasons of a dating show. And then you have shows like America’s Next Top Model, which in the long and storied tradition of fashion and beauty advertisers have repeatedly used images of women in fear, in pain, and even in coffins, and in beautiful corpse challenges in which they’re supposed to pose as gorgeous, glamorous dead girls, murder victims, while judges say things like, “Beautiful, gorgeous! You look great dead.” So what are we to make of season after season after season of beautiful corpses and Tyra Banks telling girls, “Pose as if you’re in pain. Think pain but beauty.” You remember, I’m sure: in Canada this was a big thing—two summers ago where Ryan Jenkins got voted off the show Megan Wants a Millionaire, went home—where he was positioned, by the way, on that show as great boyfriend relationship material—went home, married his ex-girlfriend, Jasmine Fiore—she was a model—married her, and then allegedly killed her and mutilated her body so badly that she was only able to be identified through the serial numbers on her breast implants, and then killed himself. People at that time called me, lots of reporters called me and said, “Has reality TV created a monster?” No, they did not create a monster, they cast a monster, and they should have known that they were casting a monster because he had a record for domestic violence.
And the thing that that says is that reality producers tend to rank women’s safety lower on their priority list than lighting and the provision of alcohol and set design. And the idea to women at home that these people are princes among men, that these people are worthy of being fought over, says basically as long as a guy has a firm ass and a firm financial portfolio he doesn’t need to be respectful, he doesn’t need to be smart, he doesn’t need to be loyal, he doesn’t need to be funny, he doesn’t need to be a good partner, and even at the baseline he doesn’t need to treat you with any kind of physical dignity, he can be a batterer, and you should still fight over him because he can bring you the bling.
Q: Is reality programming the new reality?
A: If we continue to allow media companies to let market forces define everything to the point where quality means nothing and the economics behind production is 100 per cent of the priority, then every season will have more provocative, more bigoted fare. For example, Bridalplasty is about to debut: cosmetic surgery given to brides who compete to get procedures while they plan their wedding. We’ve had Extreme Makeover, The Swan. So what can they do to make it even more disgusting? Oh, let’s merge the wedding-industrial-complex shows with the cosmetic-surgery-is-liberating-for-women shows. They have to go further and further, more racist, more misogynistic, more over-the-top. We will see more of that if we don’t become very critical very quickly.